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  • Lasers ready to flourish again in 2011

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2011
Lynn Savage, lynn.savage@photonics.com

If there is a recession, somebody needs to remind the laser industry. Despite a miserable two years for most industries – especially real estate, banking and automotive – most companies who make lasers saw only a fairly short and shallow dip in the road. Layoffs and other cost-cutting moves certainly occurred throughout the laser world, but most equipment makers, especially those who specialize in fiber or diode lasers, are experiencing strong rebounds and are adding staff and expanding manufacturing operations.

What follows are snapshots of the industry through the eyes of some of its major players:

William Shiner of IPG Photonics said that 2010 was a very good year for the company, with an increase in business of about 76 percent over the previous year. Much of that increase, he said, resulted from very rapid growth in fiber laser demand. He added that the past year saw record numbers each quarter, and that he anticipates that the upward trend will continue throughout 2011.

Part of the continuing swing comes from the fact that, after a very down year in 2009, the auto industry is making a comeback. US automakers GM, Ford and Chrysler are realizing increased demand for their vehicles, and production is once again rising, if slowly. Manufacturers in Germany and Japan also are being bolstered by customer demand for new cars, and China’s auto industry, according to Shiner, is going through the roof, supporting demand for metalworking lasers.

JDSU Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., was “as affected as anyone by the economic downturn, but there has been an uptick during the last several (fiscal) quarters,” said Werner Wiechmann, the company’s director of marketing. Gas lasers, such as the argon-ion and helium-neon devices used on production lines, are still very important to the company, and Wiechmann expects the company’s slice of that segment to grow even as the total pie likely will shrink.

The last two quarters have been good to Dilas as well, with the overall laser market gaining ground for its facilities in Tucson, Ariz., and Mainz, Germany. Stimulus funds passed around in the US and Europe helped boost sales, according to Joerg Neukum, the company’s sales and marketing director. Recently, the company’s hired 30 people to keep pace with its customers’ growing demands, as well as actively managing its supply chain to suit customer demands in the recovering market.

The need to replenish was also cited by Christopher Madin, the managing director and CEO of Klastech GmbH of Dortmund, Germany. The company, which specializes in diode-pumped solid state (DPSS) lasers, saw an increase in sales this year after an ebb in 2009. In 2011, Klastech will focus on bringing new products to market, including a 442-nm DPSS laser meant to replace helium-cadmium units as well as a compact 266-nm DPSS later in the year.

Qioptiq had a good year in 2010, according to managing director Ian Alcock. The recovering semiconductor industry, which requires a multitude of laser-based fabrication and inspection tools, provided Qioptiq with a burst of growth “in most market sectors,” he said.

After having acquired Linos in 2007 and Point Source in 2008, Qioptiq last year consolidated the brands under a single, uniform identity that provides complete products and systems.

Walter Burgess, vice president of sales and engineering at Power Technology Inc. in Little Rock, Ark., also reported that 2010 was good for his company. He attributed the positive results to agility and the higher flexibility his company offers compared with larger, public entities. The general economic downturn affected Power Technology’s customers, and the effects of the recession still linger, Burgess said, but otherwise the company is back to normal and focused on growth in 2011 and beyond.

Eric Bergles is vice president of sales and marketing at BaySpec Inc., an OEM manufacturer of narrow- and wideband light sources, including lasers, for Raman spectrometers. He states his San Jose, Calif.-based company’s chief apprehension about the new year succinctly. “Our current concern is finding quality employees to fill a number of open positions. We do not see a recession.”

After a brief slowdown, especially due to a depressed automotive industry, Trumpf Inc. “has rebounded nicely,” according to Tim Morris, general manager of the company’s Laser Technology Center. A recent quick increase in orders has caused the company to scramble somewhat, spurring increases in personnel and manufacturing shifts at its plants in Germany and elsewhere. Through this past July, the company had reduced the hours and wages of many of its employees but managed not to eliminate any positions despite the slowed economy.

According to Trumpf, the global market for laser-based materials processing equipment fell by 41 percent in 2009, to €3.8 billion ($5.0 billion). Now, however, the company expects the segment to have grown by 25 percent to about €5.0 billion ($6.6 billion) in 2010.

Not everything is rosy, however. Despite upticks in manufacturing, including in the automotive industry, the current global condition remains tenuous. Banks are holding onto money, debt problems in parts of Europe and in the US are bringing louder cries for austere approaches to government spending, and consumer demand for many products is being stifled by high unemployment.

“The uncertain economy is the greatest concern,” said Mark A. Tolbert, president and CEO of Toptica Photonics Inc., the US division of Munich, Germany-based Toptica. “Consumer comfort has a trickle-down effect. In addition, currency rates have a dramatic effect on our business as a European manufacturer.”

Toptica, which makes diode and ultrafast fiber lasers, has a diverse clientele, working closely with research scientists and OEMs. The company has experienced recent growth in industrial markets, and Tolbert said the company expects even more expansion in that niche in the coming year.

Laser makers Time-Bandwidth Products and Trumpf also reported strong years, though many did better in the international markets than in the US. For example, according to Trumpf’s Tim Morris, Asian markets for lasers are experiencing the fastest growth, especially in sales to automakers. Morris also noted that entire business sectors that had postponed capital investments have now leaped to purchase new equipment.


GLOSSARY
fiber laser
A laser in which the lasing medium is an optical fiber doped with low levels of rare-earth halides to make it capable of amplifying light. Output is tunable over a broad range and can be broadband. Laser diodes can be used for pumping because of the fiber laser's low threshold power, eliminating the need for cooling.
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